Friday, October 3, 2008

Three Memos to Self About Bob Dylan

  1. Don’t write about Bob Dylan. Everything written about Dylan by anyone other than Dylan melts in the air instantly except for Greil Marcus’s 1970 review of Self Portrait, which began “What is this shit?” and included “I once said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing hard. But I'd never said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing softly.” That piece is currently absent from Rolling Stone’s on-line review archive. But also absent is Jann Wenner’s embarrassing apologia for Street Legal, which shortly followed Marcus’s takedown of that album. The latter review is online, but it doesn’t matter any more than Street Legal mattered. Self Portrait was a singular assault on the concept and mechanism of taste, and Marcus’s invective delineated that shock in precise terms. Addressing Dylan’s other records in normative critical fashion – good ones and unlistenable ones alike – means describing a taste concept within the framework of that concept. Dylan’s work illuminates the impracticality of this, insofar as...
  2. Taste is irrelevant.
  3. Louis Armstrong loved Guy Lombardo. Wayne Shorter loves Paul Anka. Bob Dylan loves Johnny Ray. There are more than a handful of Dylan records that define “canonical” as far as rock-ish product goes (by "consensus," or something), but classifying them that way – great, abysmal, whatever – obscures how any of the “great” ones could possibly exist. Even a casual familiarity with Dylan's public comments makes clear that his standards in music have less to do with perceived intrinsic quality than with conductivity. That's why his thefts make the music work. "Masters of War" is the same tune as "Nottamun Town," and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" on Modern Times is the same as Muddy Waters's "Rollin' and Tumblin'," right down to the tempo. But they’re not the same songs. The signifying character of Dylan’s constructs are contingent upon his indifference to concealing the thefts comprising them, or spackling originality or "self-expression" onto them. On the records that work - with odd exceptions, the early ones and the very late ones - the ready-mades and not-so-ready-mades are altered just enough, and no more, to accommodate his voice and temporal sensibility. That is also why most of Dylan's attempts to fabricate “Dylan Records” throughout the 1970s and ‘80s sound so lost and so tiresome. That's also why, whenever he does do a cover, it can make you jump like seeing a ghost.
  4. His voice is really ugly for a dead guy.
  5. I have never known a time when rock & roll was not Really Finished. I bought my first record in 1974 (a 45 of “The Bitch Is Back” off a drug store rack down the street in Yarmouth, Maine); the first Rolling Stones record I ever owned was It’s Only Rock’n Roll; and the first Dylan record I ever heard (on the radio) was “Hurricane.” My reaction to the latter, in so many pre-adolescent words, was: “If it’s by that Dylan guy, do I have to learn to like this repetitive didactic shit?” The answer was (and is) “naaaah,” but I also can’t say I took “Like a Rolling Stone” as anything other than an impersonal totem, either, at first. Liking him took work and acclimatization and, even now, Dylan remains for me the most recondite of musicians relative to his ubiquity. Even when the music is pretty, it’s pretty ugly, and for a solid decade now, his records have been really, really ugly. But this is unqualified praise. Leonard Cohen sounds like a Really Old Guy. Bob Dylan doesn’t; he sounds like a Corpse. I play “Love and Theft” as often as anything he recorded before 1970, but one of its peculiar fascinations is that I can’t imagine an actual live person singing any of these songs, let alone living the circumstances described. Yet even on the 40+-year-old nonpareil genre experiments comprising The Basement Tapes, the songs sounded inhabited. No matter how abstract the imagery or circumstances, there was no question of the “I” relating them, when there was one. The voice put Dylan there, wherever “there” was. On “Love and Theft”, Modern Times and quite a lot of Tell Tale Signs, the voice has the opposite effect. The songs are like phantoms. They’re there and we’re hearing them, but because they're delivered in that weird corpse voice, there’s nothing to reassure us that anything in the sentence you are now almost to the end of is true.